I have always been fascinated by most women in literature. There is something beguiling about them and at the same time they seem to want to say it all. Whether it is a characterization of Lizzy Bennett or it is Madame Bovary, each woman is almost a world in her own sense. There are also women who are caught in circumstances beyond their understanding and will and sort of emerge with different shades of personalities.
There are women who are single and lonely and need that extra bit of life so to say, something which will complete them. This I noticed in the works of Muriel Spark more often than not and sometimes also when Iris Murdoch wrote of them. The point that I am trying to get to here is that literature is full of these fascinating characters, one of them I will add to my list, after reading, “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud.
Claire Messud’s woman is Nora Elridge. Nora is forty-two years old, a teacher and fully enraged at life, when the novel begins. She wants more out of life and doesn’t know how to do it. She wants to get out of the rut and doesn’t know where to go. She wants children. She wants a life of her own. She doesn’t want to be the “woman upstairs” who is desperate and longs for more, as days pass, living in a house that has no one else but her in it.
At the same time, the novel jumps to five years ago, in 2004 when Nora meets the Shahid family and she begins to fall in love with each member of the family – Reza her third-grade student, Sirena the mother, and finally with Skandar – Sirena’s husband and Reza’s father. This goes on for a year, the one single year that changes Nora’s life. This in brief is the plot of the novel.
Now to the style of writing of the book. The plot is so well-layered that the mystery element of the book hits you unexpectedly and that to me is some great writing skill. The thin line between fiction and reality is explored brilliantly through this book and throughout it as well. Messud’s understanding of her characters and the lives they lead is beyond excellence, because she delivers with almost every single word and that is what matters when reading a great book. Anger at all levels is reflected in the book in a very subtle and sometimes quite apparently. At the same time, there is enough intellectual depth to the book, which takes it away from being just another psychological thriller. As a reader, I was always drawn to Nora while reading the book. What would she do? How would it affect her? Should she do this at all? When a reader gets so involved with the central character, he or she knows that the book has done its bit.
Nora almost speaks to everyone and it is also frightening given the way she lives her life. One doesn’t know what is beneath the surface, till it is either revealed or one is smart enough to catch on to the hints. You will love Nora and at times also hate her – that to me is a great sign of etching a character that everyone can or almost wants to relate with and yet maintain their distance. The ending is not tidy. Messud does not even tie up the loose ends. It is for the reader to decipher what could happen and what has. The psychological inferences are many and enhance the reading experience. The cultural inferences only add to those, making the novel richer by the turn of the page.
The book is profound, deep and at the same time touches on the concept of “living” like no other book I have read in recent times. If you are up to read something that will probably make you think a lot, then this book is for you.